Payne: Room or vroom? Entry-level Mercedes GLB crossover vs. CLA sedan

Posted by Talbot Payne on October 12, 2020

The Mercedes GLB and CLA may sound like they come from the same family. But they are as different as Hansel and Gretel.

The GLB crossover and CLA sedan occupy the same entry-level compact segment. Both offer front- or all-wheel drive. Both feature the same state-of-the-art self-driving system. Yet Mercedes-Benz sees SUV and sedan buyers as entirely different people.

So it has given the entry-level vehicles two entirely different personalities.

Like siblings that take after mom or dad, the GLB gets its DNA from Papa G-wagon — Mercedes’ top-of-the-line SUV patriarch. The comely CLA learned its lessons from the top-dog S-class coupe.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 wears the brand badge proudly.

GLB is square and chunky like the off-roady G-wagon, its giant greenhouse giving excellent 360-degree visibility and comfortable rear seating for your giraffe-legged reviewer. I could easily sit behind myself in the GLB with headroom to spare.

Elsewhere in its SUV lineup, Mercedes has been pushing the envelope trying to make its SUVs look more sedan-like with racy “coupe” designs on the GLC and GLE. Well, the GLB won’t be turning any heads.

The little Mercedes takes its design cues from a shoebox. This sport utility is all about utility.

Strangely, my GLB 250 came equipped with paddle shifters, which were as useful as tennis shoes on a fish. The GLB is not a vehicle you want to row hard. Its 2.0-liter turbo-4 has enough pep to get around town, but the turbo lags and the car’s top-heavy appearance (all that greenhouse glass!) translates to healthy body roll in the twisties.

Homely it may be, but you can throw everything and the kitchen sink inside its big square hatchback — and the GLB middle seats fold flat for easy loading. Its wheelbase stretches a healthy four inches beyond the CLA. Got more stuff? Load it on the roof rails.

From the side, the 2020 Mercedes GLB looks like any other ute.

If you want a stylish Mercedes, forget the GLA and check out runway model CLA.

With is long shark nose and swept lines, the sedan will get entry-level buyers’ attention. Papa S-class would be proud. Interestingly, the GLB is adorned with jewelry — chrome exhaust valance here, a dab of rocker-panel chrome there — in order to let you know the shoebox is a Mercedes.

The gorgeous CLA doesn’t need superfluous jewelry. Its lean body is visual enough. It’s even prettier than CLA’s first-gen car which I swooned over in 2015, especially in the rear quarters which drooped in the 2014 model like it had been held too close to a flame. The 2020 version sports a firmer derriere.

That’s important because the CLA is a companion sedan with the Mercedes A-class. Like the S-class and its S-class Coupe stablemate, Mercedes offers entry-level sedan buyers two body styles. Though the CLA has four doors, its raked roofline echoes that of the two-door, S-class coupe.

The A-class is attractive to look at — but for a couple grand more, you can score a date with the homecoming queen.

The hatchback of the 2020 Mercedes GLB may not rival the coupe-back of the CLA sedan, but it holds a lot more cargo.

Speaking of a couple grand more, I would recommend upgrading to the CLA’s AMG performance trim.

Like the GLB, the standard 221-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4 in the CLA feels a bit uninterested. The AMG 35 trim gains 81 ponies and a taut all-wheel-drive suspension.

Luffing along state Route 250 in Ohio, a serious-looking 232-horse Mazda RX8 suddenly loomed in my mirrors. I toggled into the AMG 35’s exclusive Sport Plus mode, tightening the suspension and steering. The engine lowered an octave as if clearing its throat.

With a flick of the shift paddle (useful in the CLA as opposed to the GLB) I dropped the transmission a gear, then floored it. Blatt! Blatt! went the lightning-quick upshifts as I sped through a pair of ess curves, the chassis solid as a rock.

The tires on the 2020 Mercedes GLB have a little more sidewall than the CLA sedan, in case you want to take it off-road.

Exploding out of the last corner, I glanced in the rear-view mirror for my RX8 friend. He was barely in sight, struggling to keep up.

If anyone challenges you at a stoplight, the AMG’s launch control is also useful. Floor the brake. Bury the throttle. Wait for the revs to level at 3,000 rpms. Lift brake. Zot!

As different as the SUV and sedan look outside, the cockpits are similar. Both come with a standard 7-inch gauge cluster. Upgrade to a 10.25-inch cluster like my testers and you get one of the industry’s best digital experiences. Where Tesla has inspired a generation of cars with big center screens, Mercedes has innovated the horizontal dash screen, stretching from the driver’s instrument panels across the console.

Note the Kia K5, Hyundai Sonata and 2021 Cadillac Escalade as disciples of Merc’s design lead. Managing the wealth of information on these graphically rich screens is a beautifully engineered steering wheel. Without removing my hands from it, I used tiny mouse pads on the spokes to negotiate between menus.

The 302-horse 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 enjoys the long, flat country roads of middle Ohio.

There’s self-driving capability, too, for the ambitious. Mercedes’ system is reliable on a divided interstate, even changing lanes automatically when you pull the turn-signal stalk. Unfortunately, the voice-recognition system struggled with my navigation commands, whereas the available Android Auto (ahem, Mercedes, if Kia can do wireless Android Auto, why can’t you?) responded perfectly as always.

I continue to use phone apps for my in-car navigation.

The Mercedes’ consoles provide useful storage space for phone and water bottles — but could be even more useful were it not for the giant touchpad that occupies valuable console real estate and proved clumsy to operate. I didn’t use it.

Perhaps my favorite ergonomic feature on the Mercedes is the location of the engine stop-start button — the most annoying feature in autos today — right next to the ignition button. Turn on the ignition key — and turn off the stop-start button in one motion. Thanks, Mercedes!

Aft of the front thrones, the two vehicles change significantly. The CLA sedan gets cramped, the coupe roofline bearing down on my noggin while I have to splay my long legs to sit behind myself.

So different are GLB and CLA that Merc fanatics might consider buying both for the garage. One for daily chores, one for weekend getaways. One for Hansel, one for Gretel.

Next week: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Rear shot of the 2020 Mercedes CLA.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $37,645, including $995 destination charge ($66,340 AWD AMG CLA35 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline turbo-4

Power: 221 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque; 302 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (in CLA35 as tested)

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,505 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined  (as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sexy bod; sporty AMG dynamics

Lows: Useless touch pad; cramped rear seat

Overall: 4 stars

The boxy 2020 Mercedes GLB may not be much to look at it, but it makes it up in utility.

2020 Mercedes GLB

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $37,595, including $995 destination charge ($55,340 AWD GLB 250 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline turbo-4

Power: 221 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,891 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; state-of-the-art electronics

Lows: Boxy exterior; sleepy turbo-4

Overall: 3 stars

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